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Riggs sparks high hopes Team Canada member embraces leadership role Season starts tonight vs. national champion

From the moment she stepped on campus, Ashley Riggs was the offensive centerpiece of the Niagara women's hockey team.

Five years later, she remains firmly entrenched in that role -- one that comes with pressure and expectations. Just the kind of thing Riggs seems to embrace.

She gets to showcase that offensive talent and her improved defensive skills as the Purple Eagles kick off their season tonight (7 p.m., Dwyer Area) against defending national champion Minnesota-Duluth.

Riggs enters this season third all-time in goals (65), assists (51) and points (116) for Niagara.

Her impact was immediate during her freshman year of 2004-05 when she set single season marks in points (51) and goals (29).

"Obviously the pressure that she came in with as a freshman to score and impact the game hasn't changed," Niagara coach Margot Page said. "And she's the type of player who thrives on that. That's her game. She knows if she's not scoring there's an issue and she needs to step it up. She definitely does a good job of recognizing that."

"I've gotten used to it now and I love that role actually," Riggs said. "I wouldn't ask for it any other way. It's just always good that your team depends on you. I like the role that I have on this team and I'm pretty comfortable with it."

Her ability to shine in that role at Niagara has provided her numerous opportunities with the Canadian national program.

In September, she participated in an evaluation camp with the National Women's Team in Calgary. She is one of 41 players competing for a spot on the national team with its sights set on the 2010 Olympics.

She left Niagara after her standout freshman season to be part of Canada's National Women's Olympic centralized team. Riggs ended up playing with the Under-22 team, helping Canada win the 2006 Air Canada Cup in Germany. She tied for the team lead in points with five goals and two assists in four games.

Riggs continued to excel at the Under-22 level, improving her game and helping to bring back the experiences to her teammates at Niagara.

"She really works at distributing the puck well," Page said. "She's got good individual skill and she's deceptive and dynamic with the puck but her distribution skills have been a lot better. She really is an intense, feisty player. You might not see it all the time, but you're seeing it more consistently now because she knows she needs to be a physical player to play with the best. The defensive aspect of her game has really changed, too, since she's gotten here."

"My experience with Team Canada has always been amazing," Riggs said. "Those players are just unreal hockey players. It's always good to go there because you learn so much. I always have a good time when I go there. Then bringing it back here, I just try to share my experiences."

Riggs will anchor the forwards but Niagara will need help in the scoring department as the team lost Venla Heikkila and Marie Henriksen, both top scorers last year as freshmen. Heikkila is taking time for family reasons while Henriksen is taking a yearlong opportunity to train and teach in the Alps. Both are expected to return in 2009-10.

In addition to Riggs, look for Mary McKinnon to generate some offense along with transfer Jennifer MacLean and Autumn Stunt, who moved to center from defense.

The defensive core will rely on sophomore Kara Edwards while Alison Malty will continue her spot on the point of the power play.

Goaltending is more questionable as three returners and one transfer will challenge for the starting position. Back are juniors Jill Zelonis and Amanda Rowe along with senior Nikki Rudy while sophomore Jenni Bauer transfered from Bemidji State.

Minnesota-Duluth graduated just one player from last year's NCAA championship team, returning 18. It was the fourth national championship for the Bulldogs.

"Obviously come in with nothing to lose. You're automatically the underdogs," Page said. "They're a very good team. They have some outstanding players. They're well-coached. I think they will be a pleasure to watch, but I think our team will really take a positive outlook on it and look to challenge them. I don't think we're just going to sit back and go 'Oh, they're national champions.' I think we're ready to see what we can do against them."

e-mail: amoritz@buffnews.com

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